Healing from the trauma of oppression is necessary to ensure our survival and well-being. In spite of the need, in the world of mental health, injustices are rarely acknowledged and if they are, you rarely find answers as to what to do about it. Often, the message is when you struggle to deal with injustice, you are left feeling like you lack strength of character, a “blame the victim” sort of mentality.
It is inherent in being human that we strive to better ourselves though we inevitably face obstacles that make it harder for us to reach our goals. There are many injustices we may deal with that make achieving our goals harder. I am talking about things that we cannot change about ourselves or our past:
Physical, mental, or learning disabilities, LGBT related oppression, sexism, racism, low socioeconomic status, lack of education, lack of opportunity, traumas like abuse, neglect, incarceration or loss, substance abuse, and mental illness.
As a mental health therapist and a woman of color, I’m going to tell you that there are many forms of oppression and injustice we face in our lives and we have every right to be angry about them. On the other hand, we must learn to accept the realities we face and strive to overcome the challenges. I’m going to attempt to provide answers as to how to heal from them.
Here are a few resources for therapy related to the trauma of oppression: Asian Mental Health Collective Therapist Directory, Inclusive Therapists Directory, Therapy for Black Women, Therapy for Queer and Trans People of Color, and more Mental Health Resources for People of Color.
Acknowledge the Injustice
The first answer is to acknowledge the injustices you have faced and how they have affected your past and present obstacles. This involves self-empathy. You can tell yourself, “yes this made my life harder. And yes, this is going to make it harder for me to reach my goal.” It can also be helpful to find a trusted person to validate how you feel. One suggestion is to find support among people who struggle in the same way you do. Others who struggle similarly may validate your feelings or provide insight about how to deal with it in a constructive way.
Accept the Reality
The second part is to accept the reality of your situation. This might sound simple for some, and if it is, that’s great! For others, acceptance may not be as easy as it sounds. Sometimes, people get stuck in the grief process. Many injustices oppressed people face are lifelong struggles, which affect many aspects of their lives over a very long time. Injustices can result in real and perceived failures, upset goals, and endings of relationships. Grieving happens when you lose something; not just as in a death, but a relationship, an opportunity or a dream.
Part of the grief process is anger. Anger is both a motivating force and a destructive force, depending on what you do with it. Most people either direct anger outward at someone else or they direct anger inward at themselves. I suggest directing anger toward doing something constructive or positive. You can use anger to motivate you to achieve your goals. If you habitually get angry when you face obstacles, you are likely struggling through grief.
Grief actually has five stages, which do not necessarily go in order. The stages are: denial, bargaining, depression, anger and acceptance. If you find yourself stuck here, you are not alone. I suggest you speak to a counselor or therapist who is likely to understand your struggle. Acceptance is the end goal. In this case, your goal is to learn to accept the injustices you face and the hardships they create.
Adjust and Adapt Your Life and Attitude
The third part of healing from the trauma of oppression is to adjust or adapt your life or attitude in a way that takes your hardships into account. Here are examples of adjustments you can consider: time, taking extra care of your mental, physical and spiritual health, educating yourself, asking for support, and adjusting your goals or expectations for yourself.
Grieving is a process that has no set timeline. It is also not linear, but rather is cyclical. Just when you think everything is okay, it suddenly isn’t. Take breaks to allow yourself to temporarily not be okay. Then return from your break and face your challenges again.
Take extra care of your physical, mental and spiritual health
We don’t always consider physical health to be important in this process. However, studies show that traumas manifest in the body in the long term. They can result in chronic illnesses, such as asthma, heart disease, or diabetes which can ultimately shorten your life. Your mental stability also depends very much on the state of your physical body. Your body needs a daily rhythm of eating, sleeping, being in nature and exercise. When your body is in balance, you are much more emotionally stable.
Caring for your mental health is also really important. You must find self-care practices and a routine that restores your energy and allows you to recognize when you are feeling drained. I would suggest seeing a counselor or therapist who can aid with healing from the trauma of oppression. Counselors can also help you to understand how to process the losses you have felt and perceived failures. They can also help you to make realistic goals and adjustments in your life.
Taking care of your spiritual health is important as well. You must find those practices that re-invigorate your love of life and restore your faith in people and the world. Many people find refuge in churches or other religious or spiritual groups.
Ask for support
There is no shame in seeking support or help when you need it. Seek support from family, community, church, financial aid and resources. Oppressed people find strength in numbers. Family or chosen family can be an important source of support for many people. For many types of injustices, there is a non-profit, a support group or advocacy group that exists.
Educate yourself about oppression and its effects
You may have limited awareness about how the injustices affect your life and your ability to pursue your goals. Many people blame themselves for situations you don‘t realize are out of your control. You can learn what oppression is, why it happens, who is responsible and how others deal with it. Knowledge is power in a situation in which you may otherwise feel helpless and powerless.
Adjust your goals and expectations for yourself
The pitfall here is that you set your goals too high and when you get angry, you direct the anger inward at yourself and self-sabotage. You might also set your goals too low and drown yourself in grief over the loss of your dreams. I suggest that you set realistic and achievable goals, without limiting yourself over the long term. That means you must allow for the possibility that you will heal in time and that as you heal, you will be capable of more than you think. Remember not to measure your progress by others expectations or achievements.
Focus your energy on working for change
One final note is that it can be very healing to find work that helps others who face injustice or to fight to change oppression. It can be helpful to redirect the energy of anger in this way. If you do this, try to find balance in it so that you don’t martyr yourself. Seek healing from the trauma of oppression in other ways if you follow this path.